Taita ancestors could be turning in their graves when they witness, with utter dismay, the high handedness of the Government security agents as they crack down on the so-called illicit brews in Taita-Taveta County, and more so on m’bangara, a local brew that was a hallmark of virtually every ceremony in the days gone by.
No social event or rite of passage was ever considered complete without a drink of m’bangara by the Taita elders and seers. The drink was usually used as libations to pour to the ancestors, who in turn gave blessings to the community on issues such as guaranteeing bumper harvests, victory in wars with aggressive neighbours or keeping calamities such as diseases at bay.
In fact, whenever a calamity befell Taita land seers and elders had to divine and beseech the ancestors to bring the misfortunes to an end, and one key component was m’bangara drink alongside meat from black sheep or a goat.
It is still said, though sometimes in jest, that members of the Taita community are among the heaviest drinkers of alcohol, which is seen as emanating from the local culture, and traditions of the Wadawida, though such sweeping generalizations should not be seen to offend every member of this community.
“Traditionally, contrary to what happens today alcohol(m’bangara) was taken by elders and more so, in moderate amounts. Elders usually condemned drunkenness among the youth, since they were considered the pillars and future of the community, so they had to be strongly advised against heavy drinking which could hamper their ability to found and run their families or fighting in battles to protect their community” says Mzee Jezrel Ngoda(78).
Mzee Ngoda says elders usually took moderate amounts of m’bangara as a sign of unity with their departed fathers as well as a source of inspiration so that they could communicate effectively with the spirits during divination in the caves and gravesides, especially when a body of a seer was being exhumed ready to have the head decapitated and taken to the caves.
The elder says any wayward youth who showed a tendency to slide into drunkenness long before founding a family was thoroughly warned against this vice and the consequences that could attend.
However if he failed to heed the advice of the elders, the mother to the youth would be instructed to cast a spell on the son, so that he could cease drinking altogether or risk serious consequences such as impotence or even death.
The spell known locally as “kubarilwa nyungu”, involved the mother to the wayward son uttering certain words into an old pot after which she smashed the pot on the ground. If the youth continued taking alcohol, his life would suffer the same fate as the broken pot.
This practice, some Taita elders opine, could serve to keep youth away from heavy drinking and the curse of alcohol abuse, which is wrecking many families, far from the Mututho laws, which seem to disregard local cultures and values in relation to alcohol consumption.
On the other one hand, it is ironical that while women were the ones tasked with the work of making m’bangara, it was taboo for them to imbibe the same. A drunk woman was an abomination to the community in the days of yore in Taita community.
But this did not mean that women and children went thirsty. On the contrary, women were allowed to drink m’bangara when it was in the initial stages when it had not full fermented to alcohol, what is locally known as marami.
After the women had pounded the sugarcane hearts in a mortar, they would squeeze the molasses in a pot after which maize flour was added to the molasses. This would produce marami, which the women usually took as they continued with the brewing process.
The drink became alcoholic when a succulent fruit locally known as mwasina ( in other community also known as muratina) was added and the mixture allowed to ferment into m’bangara.
From now, on the drink was out of bounds to women and children, with the former only serving the elders and seers.
But now the cultural value of m’bangara has waned. The taboos that guided its brewing and consumption are now dead in the water. Nowadays youth and women are taking the drink with reckless abandon, something which was unheard of in those days gone by.
Furthermore, the manner in which m’bangara is being prepared nowadays leaves a lot to be desired.
“Apart from being made under unhygienic conditions, some of the brewers add uncertified chemicals to the drink to give it more potency but which could harm the consumers,” says mzee Ngoda.
He went on: “When I was getting married my father poured the drink on the floor to appease my great grandfathers to bless me with children and wealth”.
Mzee Ngoda says no bride price was complete without m’bangara, and failure to pay this part of the bride wealth could invite curses to future generations.
A Voi elder who preferred to remain anonymous blames the government for virtually criminalizing the brewing and selling of m’bangara.
“This drink is an integral part of our culture and the government should license it so that it can be brewed and sold in clubs as it used to happen during colonial days,” he said.
“After all there are so many hard drinks been sold in bars which are far more potent and harmful that m’bangara. Terming our traditional brew “illicit” by the government is an affront to our traditional cultures and values”, he opined.